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Prisoners look out from their cells in the maximum security wing at Sarposa prison in July 2010. (Bill Graveland/Canadian Press)


It sits on the edge of Kandahar City in the Taliban heartland. But the warden of Sarposa prison says his facility is a bold statement of security in the face of Afghanistan's thriving insurgency  

"The enemy is always trying to make a new plan to attack the prison," says Afghan Gen. Dastgier Mayar. But "I'm quite confident my staff can defend their prison."  

Two years ago that wasn't the case.  

In a daring assault, a Taliban suicide bomber drove a truck to the front gate and detonated a bomb that was so intense, the shockwave blasted through the entire prison, blowing out the front gates and knocking bricks out of the aging walls.  

In the confusion that followed, two guards were killed and over 1,000 inmates fled into the obscurity of nearby Kandahar City. At least 600 were believed to be connected to the Taliban.

The jailbreak was a huge embarrassment, not only for the Afghan government but also for the Canadian government, which had been working for a year to secure the prison and update its facilities. 

Now, two years and $5.5 million dollars later, Canada's prison officials are still hard at work at Sarposa, trying to bring it up to at least a basic level of security.

International standards

Given the number of insurgents being arrested these days by NATO and Afghan forces, secure prison space is near the top of Afghanistan's long list of desperate security needs.  

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The courtyard at Sarposa prison outside Kandahar City, with the Taliban-infested hills in the background. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)

Sarposa is still an Afghan-run prison in Afghanistan, George Sproul, a deputy project director with Correctional Service of Canada, explained on a tour of the grounds. "Our major task is to bring it up to international standards."  

One of those standards is that today you can no longer drive up the main gate unsupervised. Approaching vehicles have to slowly snake through a maze of concrete barriers.

Look closely and you can also clearly see a line along the now reinforced prison wall, where about a metre of new bricks has been added.  

"It's not a modern prison in Canada," says Sproul. "But it is certainly a modern prison in Afghanistan."

Brick and mud

Today, Sarposa holds about 1,000 inmates and the main building is at least 80 years old, much of it built out of the local standard, brick and mud.  

Three ranges extend from a central dome and the prisoners are segregated into two broad classes: criminal and political.  

In the criminal wing, Correctional Services has completed a large retrofit. New wiring has been installed, for those times when Kandahar's electricity does kick in, and new plumbing has replaced the outdoor sewers.  

The doors to the cells have also been replaced. Each cell holds up to 15 prisoners, which is the way inmates here have always been managed.  

To brighten up the place, the drab brick hallways have been repainted a vivid green. But as a constant reminder to everyone of where they are, new razor wire has also been strung along the top of the fence and the windows.  

Almost all of the renovations are local material installed by local labourers. "We want to make sure that any improvements that are done, they can fix." Sproul explains.

As he speaks, prisoners pick at a big pile of ice that's been dumped on the range floor in an effort to provide some relief from the plus-40 degree heat. They stop only to get a look at the Western TV crew that is shooting here.

Safer?

A painted arrow points to the section for political prisoners, which is where insurgents, including members of the Taliban, are held.  

Their range has not yet been refurbished and now, as darkness falls, it has almost a medieval feel to it.

These prisoners don't come up to the bars.

In an effort to keep inmates away from the insurgency, Canada has also set up some vocational training here, so prisoners might be able to find jobs after release.

In the woodworking shop, an inmate named Jimigol hammers together a cabinet.   He's been here 16 months already on a charge of theft and has another two months to go.

"The prison is improving," he says, through a translator. "It's safer especially in the last couple of months."

Still dangerous

Still, these walls don't offer much protection from rocket attacks or snipers who are known to lurk in the nearby mountains.  

All foreign visitors, including Sproul, have to wear body armour. On our trip here, we were also accompanied by a dozen armed Canadian soldiers.

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George Sproul, (left) deputy project director with Correctional Service of Canada, discusses the state of repairs at Sarposa prison with Afghan Gen. Dastgier Mayar, who is in charge of the facility. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)

 

There was another bombing attempt in March. And while it failed, most of the guards quickly quit their jobs as a result.  

Threats are constantly being made against the prison and its staff. A couple of months ago, the prison's office manager was assassinated.  

"There are worries about our personal security," Gen. Mayar, the commanding officer, admits. "But this is our country, we should make sacrifices for our country."

In his office, Mayar sits beneath a photo of the office manager who was killed.  

Unlike other fronts in this war, Sarposa is not regularly defended by the Afghan National Army or NATO troops.  

In order to get new guards, Mayar, with the help of the Canadian government, convinced the Afghan government to give prison guards a raise.

Outside, 10 new guards are doing drills with what look like ancient Kalashnikov rifles.  

Chances are they are more likely to shoot someone in self-defence, rather than someone trying to get out.  

Still, the fact the insurgents haven't been able to break back inside is proof Sarposa is working, Mayar says.

The jail, he says will only get stronger. "They are not succeeding on their plan, we are defending this prison."